CLASSICAL MUSIC Virgil Thomson 100th Anniversary Celebration Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
Virgil Thomson, born 100 years ago last week, was a composer with a certain idea of music. Just how certain was revealed at the Wigmore Hall on Monday by pianists David Kopp and Rodney Lister, who played a wide range of his work in an anniversary concert also featuring tenor Kevin McDermott and a finely honed programme set in Eric Gill's monotype Joanna. That few people were there to give it a look was maybe part of the Thomson effect. John Cage, thinking of the chameleon qualities of his style, described his output as intangible: music written not as grandiose statement - music in the epic Virgilian mould - but music as reflection of life, like the evidence of a shopping list, or a memo, or a snatch of gossip.

This attitude also reflected the spirit of Thomson's guiding muse, the composer Erik Satie, whose influential humour and delight in borrowed clothes were evident in the opening item, the Synthetic Waltzes of 1925. Childlike yet never childish, they paraded their simple triads with a strutting innocence that also waylaid the pulse with all manner of trips and snares. This was far from simple music after all. Something similar occurred in the Introduction and Allegro of the First Symphony, "Symphony on a Hymn Tune". Written in 1928 and here performed in a four-hand arrangement, it formed the concert's apotheosis, were it possible for Thomson to be responsible for such a vulgar effect. Some of it was heavy going: plain repeated chords, for example, whose potential for grievous bodily harm was limited by the aural bludgeoning of more recent minimalist manners. Yet just when you thought that the way was straight and narrow, something occurred to unbalance the flow, something oddly like a raised eyelid saying, "Surely you don't take anything you've just heard for what it seems?"

The poise and pose derived, perhaps, from Thomson's other mentor, the garrulous verbal surrealist Gertrude Stein. Her text to Preciosilla of 1927 was more dense than Edith Sitwell's to Walton's near contemporary Facade, and its nonsense was set to a different kind of music: 1920s baroque that recalled none other than the songs of our own dear Gerald Finzi. Strange meeting this, or was it so? Both composers were devoted to accurate declamation, a cause espoused by Britten and Tippett as well, through the medium of the baroque cantata. In contrast, and this being Thomson, a set of Shakespeare songs, with texts that Finzi himself might have chosen, were set in old-time revivalist style. To shroud "Take O take those lips away" in swathes of Victorian hymnody was certainly a novel decision. Touching for its lack of irony was a song from 1937, "My Shepherd will supply my need", words from Psalm 23 courtesy of Isaac Watts, music from a common stock that showed leanings to a faux-naif American style found also in the music of Copland and Samuel Barber.

Six Portraits for piano, sketched in the presence of their subjects, suggested the strength of the younger composer. An aria from his third opera, Lord Byron of 1966, was a little too "set to music". But Thomson, one feels, did not develop. He just took his time. He is described in the Gore Vidal memoirs as an original or near original. This fact did not make him internationally great. It means, however, that his music is likely to survive when more famous names are all but forgotten.

Nicholas Williams

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